Written by Father James Bartoloma
The last time Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent fell on February 14th was in 1945. At that time, the fasting laws were stricter and applied on almost all days during Lent. The only exceptions would be Sundays and if certain Holy Days occurred within the 40 days. March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation, would be an example.
In 1945, although the Second World War was drawing to a close, its impact could still be keenly felt. This was first and foremost the case in war-torn parts of the world. But, even in our own country and within the Diocese of Camden, a wartime point rationing system was in place which limited how much and what type of food most people could have access to.
According to a Courier Post article from Feb. 12, 1945, it was “because of the difficulties experienced by families in obtaining meat and other foods” that Bishop Bartholomew J. Eustace issued a dispensation from the regulations of Lenten fasting and abstinence that year. This would have applied on the majority of days when fasting was required.
Still, even with that dispensation, Catholics throughout the diocese were still obligated to abstain from meat on Fridays in 1945. Furthermore, for the two very important days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the laws for both fasting and abstinence remained in force.
Considering the circumstances of war times, that dispensation was appropriate and balanced. It addressed an exceptional situation that a number of Catholics found themselves in because of war rations. At the same time, the importance of their spiritual good and the penitential aspect of the Lenten Season was maintained.
Fasting is one of the most ancient practices of the church. Christ himself spoke about fasting, and there are numerous references to the discipline in both the Old and New Testaments. When certain laws of the church do not bind us, there must be a just reason for this as well.
In the church, some laws are recognized as part of divine law. They are from God and pertain essentially to the way he has designed us to be and what he has communicated to us through his revelation. These laws, such as the Ten Commandments, are absolute and cannot change. God cannot contradict himself and his creation is not meant to contradict his design.
Other laws in the church are classified as merely ecclesiastical law. The word “merely” does not mean arbitrary; it means “purely.” Merely ecclesiastical laws originate from the legislative authority of the church. They command or prohibit something for the good order and benefit of the church as a sacred society.
There is a certain intrigue that surrounds many of our Lenten practices and on top of that, a further intrigue if the laws that relate to those practices are dispensed. A dispensation is a temporary relaxation of a law because of legitimate circumstances and a certain usefulness to the society of the church. Divine laws, because of their nature, cannot be dispensed. This would dangerously imply a contradiction and imperfection in God.
Merely ecclesiastical laws, though, can be dispensed and diocesan bishops have a significant (but not absolute) ability to do so. They must recognize just reasons and even determine that the relaxation of the law can contribute to the spiritual good of an individual or the community.
This was the rationale 73 years ago when the first Bishop of Camden issued a dispensation for the Lenten Season of 1945. It was also the rationale last year, in 2017, when the eighth Bishop of Camden gave a dispensation from the Lenten obligation to abstain from eating meat when Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017, happened to fall on a Friday in Lent. Bishop Sullivan also asked those who utilized the dispensation to either abstain from meat on another day of the week or make another sacrifice on the day itself.
This year, while Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent happen to both fall on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, there are some significant differences which come into play as to why no similar dispensation has been given.
First of all, it is rare that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide. Again, the last time was in 1945.
In the church’s calendar, there is also a difference in the liturgical rank of the days. The feast of Saint Patrick is optionally commemorated in Lent. This is the case even though we take Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations as a given because of the impact of Irish Catholics who came to the United States.
Saint Valentine’s Day, on the other hand and as far as the church’s calendar is arranged, is technically a local feast which is commemorated in areas that have a more direct connection to the saint.
For both Saint Valentine’s and Saint Patrick’s Days, there is a mixture of both sacred and earthly celebration of those two great heroes of the faith. Nevertheless, when it comes to their celebrations in Lent, Valentine’s Day simply does not hit the target for what would be just cause for any sort of February 14th, Ash Wednesday dispensation.
Couples are usually more inclined to celebrate a quiet, romantic Saint Valentine’s Day than they are on Saint Patrick’s Day. It is much easier, therefore, in this exceptional year of 2018, for they themselves to move a Valentine’s dinner or date night, rather than risk diminishing Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Sacred Season of Lent.
Father Bartoloma is the Chancellor of the Diocese of Camden.